Vancouver House Restaurant Review: Autostrada Is Intensely Customer-Focused

What's more impressive: the duck and anchovy ragu or the first-class service?

My guess is that when Westbank was plotting their commercial tenants, they assumed that the outpost of David Chang’s Momofuku empire would be the catalyst that drew people to the area. Well, thanks in part to COVID, there’s still no Momofuku and with both the restaurant and the developer staying mum on the status, I think it’s fair to say it ain’t opening soon, if ever.

In its place (figuratively, not literally) is a different outpost—Lucais Syme and Dustin Dockendorf’s third Autostrada—that has filled the void and proved such a draw that I’m eating at the bar, by myself, on a rainy Tuesday at 5 p.m. I tried for weeks and weeks to get a reservation but it proved impossible.

Seriously, even shooting long into the future and opting for Mondays and Tuesdays, I was still relegated to either the before-5:30 or after-8:30 time slots. But even at 5:00, the place is already half full, and by the time I leave 75 minutes later, it’s packed. The room isn’t huge—it seats 74—but they’ve clearly captured the attention of the locals: one fellow solo patron is clearly here for his weekly spot and a family with young kids is in one of the banquettes for what also looks like a standing reservation. It feels like the potential of Coal Harbour as a neighbourhood is finally being realized here—20 blocks to the south. 

The menu is recognizable to anyone who has been to either of the other two Autostradas—there are a few dishes missing and a few new additions—but for the most part it’s an exercise in “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” (The spot briefly had acclaimed chef Stefan Hartmann at the helm, but they amicably parted ways last spring.) And it’s a wonderfully tight menu anchored by classics—tuna crudo, bucatini cacio e pepe—that allows the willing to branch out into more esoteric shapes (the fazzoletti, or kerchief pasta, has quickly become a signature) and daily specials that skew more adventurous. 

But it’s the two pillars of execution and value that have this place perpetually slammed. On that first pillar, all I can say is that, over the course of four years and now three Autostradas, I’ve not only never had a bad meal, I’ve never had a bad dish. The vitello tonnato is an exercise of restrained perfection—not mucked up with any “signatures” Syme might want to impart on an iconic dish, just perfectly cooked, thinly sliced veal topped with a tuna sauce that’s exactly briny enough to provide balance without being showy. The duck and anchovy ragu is a Venetian-inspired wonder—there’s not a tomato in sight, and the anchovy quotient is aggressive but perfectly offsets the duck’s richness.

And then there’s the service. Even in the teeth of the staffing crunch, all three Autostradas seem to engender a rare devotion among their workers and the service is the beneficiary. An example: I order a glass of Castello di Albola Chianti—at $14, it’s near the top of their reasonable by-the-glass prices—and I spy the bartender grab the three-quarters-full bottle, uncork it, give a quick sniff and then reach down to open an entirely new one. It was refreshing in the face of my ongoing pet peeve toward so many wine-by-the-glass programs—namely, that “not gone bad” is not the same as good. It speaks to a place that is intensely customer focused: from the menu to the wine list to the servers. And the customers, at least from the view of my 5 p.m. Tuesday solo reservation, are responding in kind.

READ MORE: Reviews of Vancouver House’s Ça Marche and Linh Café